Tag Archives: tzedakah

Who Will Live and Who Will Die?

shofar

The Shofar calls us to atone

We live with a practical tradition. We begin the New Year with ten days devoted to introspection. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are asked to review our past; failures and victories, to evaluate our relationships and how we can make things better for ourselves and those we care for. We take stock of our lives and try to put ourselves back on the right path. “Chet” is the Hebrew word commonly translated as “sin.” It is derived from the term which means “to miss the target.” The assumption is that sin is a mistake; an action we would correct if possible. It is human to make mistakesit is brave to try to correct them. This makes “Teshuvah” translated as “to return” an attainable task. We are not expected to be perfect but we are expected to clean up the messes we have made.

Our tradition identifies two categories of relationships; those we have with each other and those relationship we have with God. The mistakes we make fall into these categories as well: The ways in which we hurt others and the ways in which we hurt God.

Isn’t it incredible that we can hurt God? Some may disagree and ask, “How can a perfect God be concerned with our sins?” In my opinion it is a measure of God’s love for us that God created a relationship in which God is affected by our actions. And, while some may say this is only a metaphor I am not so sure. If one truly believes in the concept of “Tikun Olam,” and recognizes our responsibility to fix the world, how can God not be disappointed and hurt when we fail?

This interplay between “Teshuvah” and “Chet,” our relationship to others creates a very involved dynamic and ideally forces us to face our frailties and responsibilities. We have made mistakeshow can we atone for them? We are always in need of repentance and atonement.

We learn from the Midrash (Mishle 6:6):

The students of Rabbi Akiva asked him, “Which is greater, Teshuvah or Tzedakah?
He answered them, “Teshuvah, because sometimes one gives Tzedakah to one who does not need it. However, Teshuvah comes from within (it is always needed).” They (the students) said to him, “Rabbi, have we not already found that Tzedakah is greater than Teshuvah?”

Fixing houses in Appalachia

Our crew working in Appalachia

How does one explore Judaism and derive deep meaning from it? What if you want to strengthen your Jewish identity? One way is to become introspective and find yourself in intense moments we create through silent ritual and prayer. This is the essence of “Teshuvah,” the “return to one’s tradition. This is one way, and it is a good way. But it is not the only way.

Another way to achieve this goal is to immerse oneself in Tzedakah. To experience the intensity of giving a bag of school supplies to a child who has never had them before, delivering 20,000 pounds of food to a shelter in Mississippi or building a house in Appalachiais a way becoming close to God.

I can tell you this; when I am alone and feel in the dark, scared and aware of my mortality, when I am in pain, it is the Tzedakah experiences I dust-off and recall. They bring me back. Ritual and prayer are vital expressions of my identity and form the basis of my observance, but my humanity comes from Tzedakah.

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Posted on September 21, 2014

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Increasing Purim’s Joy

Purim is coming and the inhabitants of my house are giddy with anticipation. It has long been a favorite holiday in our family. We talk about costumes for weeks ahead of time. We take annual Purim pictures of the kids in their costumes. Marathon baking sessions ensure adequate supplies of hamantaschen for eating and sharing. And the kids take special pleasure in sending packages of hamantaschen and other goodies to friends and family, near and far. That’s before the actual holiday even arrives, bringing with it feasting, megillah reading, and shpielling.

Amid all the frivolity and hoopla that accompanies Purim, however, is a serious obligation; feeding the hungry.

img-food-basket

The commandment to provide food for the poor finds its basis in the Purim story itself (Esther 9:22). The Gemara (Megillah 7a) offers the necessary guidelines; it states that one must distribute gifts to the poor. And not just to one person but to no fewer than two needy individuals. Such gifts can be in the form of money or actual foodstuffs. So important is this oft-overlooked obligation that the Rambam places a higher value on the act of caring for the poor than on any other aspect of the holiday.

It is better for a person to increase gifts to the poor than to increase his feast or the mishloach manot (gifts of food) to his neighbours. There is no joy greater or more rewarding than to gladden the heart of the poor, orphans, widows and strangers. For by gladdening the hearts of the downtrodden, we are following the example of the Divine.
(Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Megillah 2:17)

Once upon a time, the organization formerly known as the Jewish Fund for Justice established a special fund to help women successfully overcome barriers to becoming economically self-sufficient. The Purim Fund for Women in Poverty distributed funds to agencies that worked with ow-income women, providing them with skills and assistance in order to help them improve their economic situations.

Why women?

Because women are disproportionately at risk for falling below the poverty line. Across all racial lines.

  • In 2010, 31.6 percent of households headed by single women were poor, while 15.8 percent of households headed by single men and 6.2 percent of married-couple households lived in poverty.
  • 13 percent of women over 75 years old are poor compared to 6 percent of men.
  • The poverty gap between women and men widens significantly between ages 18 and 24—20.6 percent of women are poor at that age, compared to 14.0 percent of men.

The Purim Fund for Women in Poverty no longer exists. But there are many worthy organizations in every community that are working tirelessly to gladden the hearts of the most vulnerable in our society. Won’t you consider increasing the joy of Purim by assisting those in need as our Tradition demands of us?

Posted on February 19, 2013

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Caregiving or Responsibility?

I think that it would be wrong to let the day go by without saying something about the election. But I don’t really want to talk about the candidates or their platforms, or what they should have done differently or better, or why this one won or lost. Instead, since a lot of the struggle was over how our government should spend its money, I think it would be worthwhile to ask what kinds of competing economic visions we have for our country, and what Judaism might say about them.

In very general terms, one group has concentrated on the idea of personal responsibility – that each of us ought to be able to stand on our own two feet and not depend upon others, and that if someone works hard enough, they will succeed; the other group, also in very general terms, considers the government to be the external structure for community, and (sometimes) tries to implement programs that will serve to strengthen individuals who are having trouble helping themselves and to create safety nets for them and considers  success to often be a matter of luck.

Both of these approaches are valued in Judaism. Our sages tell us unequivocally that “just as shabbat is a covenant, so is work a covenant” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan).  And Maimonides criticizes strongly someone who chooses not to work, instead taking charity, even “anyone who decides to study Torah and not work, making his living from charity, desecrates Gods name and disgraces the Torah. Any Torah that is not accompanied by work will lead to its own undoing and cause sin.” In other words, supporting oneself and one’s family is very important, and work is not simply a means for support, but in itself can be a holy task.

At the same time, Judaism also unequivocally states that we are obligated to care for others who have less than we do.  Our sages have told us – in numerous and varied places- that we have an obligation to support the poor. Unlike the root of the word “charity” (from “caritas”)  tzedakah is not given because one is moved to give, but – as with so many things in Judaism- because we are commanded to give, and we have an obligation to do so. The word itself comes from the word “tzedek” – justice.

It is unfair to label either of the groups “coldhearted,” or “irresponsible,” as I have seen some do: there is plenty of charitable individual giving from the “personal responsibility” group. Nevertheless, Judaism is fairly clear that it doesn’t see individual giving as a sufficient (although it is a necessary) response to poverty. This is for two reasons. First, the tendency to see one’s wealth as something that one has earned out of one’s own sweat, and with no help from others is noted by the Torah itself: Continue reading

Posted on November 7, 2012

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Tu Bishvat and the Spiritual Meaning of Tax Season

As I write today’s blog entry on Tu Bishvat, I’m sitting in my home office looking at the piles of paper that I need to sort and file in order to begin getting things in order for filing my taxes this year.  Its never something that I particularly look forward to, and I’m sure much procrastination will ensue before I actually succumb to the task.  Yet this task that remains at hand, and today’s festival have much more in common than you might imagine.

Today, when we think of the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, we think of a Jewish Arbor Day; a day to give thanks for trees, the fruit of the trees, and the beauty of our natural world.  Some might think of the Kabbalists’Tu Bishvat Seder” ritual which utilized different kinds of fruits symbolically to take the participant on a journey into the different levels of the soul.  However, relatively few will be thinking of the historical origins of Tu Bishvat, derived by the rabbis of old from a commandment in the Torah:

“When you enter the land [of Israel] and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten” (Leviticus 19:23).

As explained on the main pages on Tu Bishvat on myjewishlearning.com, ‘when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, Tu Bishvat served as the day on which farmers offered the first fruits of the trees they planted, after the trees had turned four years old. The following Tu Bishvat signified when the farmers were allowed to begin making use of the produce of the trees they planted, whether for personal or economic reasons.’  The Rabbis of the Talmud established the 15th day (Tu) of the month of Shvat as the official “birthday” of trees from which to determine the age of the trees.

Today we no longer have a temple and relatively few of us are farmers (although there are some wonderful programs engaging a whole new generation of Jews in farming and growing food locally, such as the Adamah fellowship at the Isabella Freedman Center in the CT Berkshires, and the Kayam Fellowship at the Pearlstone Center near Baltimore, MD).  Tithing is a term that is more frequently used in churches than synagogues.  Perhaps the closest modern-day equivalent would be the paying of our taxes.

While tzedakah (acts of righteousness, including but not limited to monetary charity) is regarded as an obligation in Jewish tradition it is, nevertheless, a choice as to how we give, when we give, and how much.  Tithing in biblical times, and paying our taxes today are obligations that fall upon us at particular times, with consequences if we fail to respond.

What is of spiritual and communal significance is that, looking back at the biblical and rabbinic sources, the farmer had an obligation to tithe from the fourth year’s produce and only then could they begin to reap the benefits for themselves.  This was part of the biblical understanding that when we reap rewards, even from our own labors, we first give in recognition that we should never see ourselves as the sole agent in our success.  We give thanks to the Source of Existence, and we give for the sake and for the needs of the community at large, recognizing that our place in the economic and social landscape is intrinsically linked and benefits from the broader society within which we operate.  We begin by designating a portion of the year’s income as ‘not mine’.  From there we figure out how to live with the rest of our portion.  We might feel a little differently about paying our taxes if we tried on this framework for size, rather than seeing the government as ‘taking’ something away from us.

This Tu Bishvat I find myself considering the wisdom of this ethical framework and spiritual lesson to current conversations about U.S. tax codes, the obligations of the wealthy to pay a fair share, and the ways we talk about our obligations to ensure the well-being of all in our society.  How different our communal, political, and media narratives might sound if we embraced some of these lessons today.

 

Posted on February 8, 2012

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Fighting Poverty with Faith

It’s four days after Thanksgiving and I am feeling guilty. My family enjoyed a weekend of delicious leftovers from our Thanksgiving feast and there’s plenty more for the rest of this week, plus the stuffing we froze for another day and the pile of leftover homemade cakes and breads that went back to school with my children who are in college. A family of cooks and nutrition fanatics, we spent the weekend talking about the pleasure of the colorful spread of vegetable dishes we prepared.

So why am I feeling guilty about all this joyous abundance? {In my view, guilt is a healthy emotion if it leads one to righteous action.} My unease comes from the realization that many Americans did not enjoy this type of lush eating, even on Thanksgiving – and could not access – the quantity and quality of food that my family is privileged to have.  Today I am thinking about the hundreds of thousands of residents of my state alone, NJ, who struggle to buy food. Many can only afford to eat low cost, processed and nutritionally empty foods. Some are going to bed hungry, including far too many children. All suffer the indignity of being poor.

This is just one state. A recent article posted on WNYC website elaborates: “The number of New Jersey residents receiving food stamps has doubled in the last four years despite the state’s standing as No. 2 wealthiest in the nation. One in every 10 people in the state now receive aid – totaling 400,000 households, according to New Jersey Department of Human Resources.”

We know the reasons: unemployment and underemployment top the list. But these are people’s lives. “The Community Food Bank of New Jersey said it has doubled the amount of free food it provides to needy residents. ‘They’re becoming more desperate,’ said Diane Riley, director of advocacy, who noted people tend to be more embarrassed to go on food stamps than to come to a food pantry.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation reported that the average cost of this year’s Thanksgiving meal for 10 people was $49.20, a $5.73 price increase from the average in 2010.  In my kosher home, the turkey alone cost that much. Add in lots of fresh vegetables and fruits and, well, it’s embarrassing to notice the gaping discrepancy between what we typically spend on a holiday feast and this much smaller sum that is “average.”  I couldn’t help but notice that this is symbolic of the wealth and class divide that has become a scourge in America.  And we are not even wealthy!

The inequality in our country is a travesty. The poverty rate in New Jersey is also rising, according to government reports. 
The Census Bureau recently documented that 13.6 million American households reported receiving food stamps, a 16 percent increase.  “One in three Americans — 100 million people — is either poor or perilously close to it.” (NY Times editorial, 11/23/11) As wealth is concentrated at the top of the income scale, poverty spreads and suffering grows.

So I feel guilty. But I can’t stay there for long—I know that I have a job to do: to take even more responsibility to help correct these huge problems; to help share my bounty with those who are not as lucky. I am no more worthy than anyone else, and my neighbors who are hungry deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion.  The Torah commands us to care for the needy, leaving the corners of our fields that those who are hungry may come and eat.  The Torah commands us: “…Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8, 11). The responsibility to care for the needy and to help them to rise up out of poverty is a central spiritual value of the Jewish people.

The toxic political environment in this country right now is discouraging. But the idea that those who are hungry may not be given basic assistance to obtain food, and the dignity to find their way out of poverty, is a moral outrage. The challenge to government Food Stamp budgets is absolutely not acceptable. So my responsibility does not stop with providing food – real help for those who are struggling with poverty requires activism.

It is very encouraging that there is an interfaith effort to address these challenges. The organization Fighting Poverty with Faith is building a nationwide, interfaith movement to cut domestic poverty in half by 2020. “Working together to end hunger” is a theme of this year’s mobilization. Many are taking the “Food Stamp Challenge,” living on the budget of food stamps for a week.

It would be so easy to shrug our shoulders, quietly eat our bountiful leftovers, and hope someone else would solve these problems. But our ancestors knew that it takes much more. It takes a goal, a vision, that “there shall be no needy among you,” even as we know that poverty is a constant challenge in every society. With this as our vision, we are empowered to work together — to help each other.

After all, at any moment, any one of us could lose our good fortune. Wouldn’t we want our neighbors to be there for us too?

Posted on November 29, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy